Melnik, the Smallest Town in Bulgaria
Located in the picturesque Pirin mountain, Melnik is a magical town that easily transports us back in time. It is most famous as the smallest town in Bulgaria with its only 200 inhabitants who all say they know each other. Today we will tell you all about the engaging activities you can take part in there, which are the most popular sites in the town and what exactly makes it the perfect destination for a day trip or a relaxed weekend. In other words, this seems to be our try for a quick guide of Melnik. We have been longing to visit this town for a long time now and honestly admit that it definitely exceeded our expectations! Surprisingly for us, there is more sightseeing in the area that one can do only for a day, but we’ve put our most comfortable shoes for a reason and explored as much as we could for the time spent there.
Due to its special architecture and well-preserved authentic Medieval and Revival houses, Melnik is a town-museum of national importance. In the past it was called the “town of the 100 churches”, but in fact only 72 existed and nowadays only 3 are functioning. That said, maybe the famous wine is what mostly drives tourists to visit the town and continue going back there. The region between Petrich and Sandanski, where Melnik is located as well, is the only place where the “Shiroka Melnishka” grape vine grows (meaning broad-leaved vine of Melnik). Of course, the famous wine is produced from this special vine and it is distinguished by its rich fruity aroma that used to set an example for the wines even in Europe. The specific microclimate in the area allows to cultivate the vine and properly conserve the production. Almost every house had a basement and a wine cellar, whose production was very beneficial due to the propitious temperature.
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The Melnik pyramids
With its high rocky formations rising all around the city, Melnik looks more like a well-kept fortress rather than an ordinary mountain town. Natural defensive wall, as well as an incredible landmark that is breathtaking to every visitor. Declared as a national natural landmark in 1960, the Melnik pyramids are formed from limestone, clay, and sand. Precisely from these spectacular rock formations comes the name of the city because the Slavs called the white clay “mel” hence Melnik. The sunlight and the erosion are to blame for their strange forms that are alternating with the high trees growing on them and ruins of Medieval churches and fortress walls. This quite interesting mix creates such a unique and mesmerizing landscapes that it is hard to take your eyes off them and make yourself stop taking picture after picture. If you crave for a panoramic view of the famous pyramids you should head towards the cobblestoned path across from the hotel “Bulgari” and follow the signs all the way up. Although a lot of the sites are marked, we would recommend that you find and trust a local to guide you since the narrowed paths are abundant and one can easily mix up.
Churches and monasteries in the “St. Nicholas” hill
The path towards the best view of the Melnik pyramids is studded with Medieval churches and monasteries hidden in the picturesque green hills. The first one to catch your eye is the Metropolitan church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-maker, next to which are the remains of stone houses and fortress walls, once an essential part of the town. The church “St. Nicholas” is the oldest and the biggest one in Melnik, built in the 13th century. Part of its murals is taken down and transported to the Archeological museum of Sofia. The monasteries “St. Haralampi” and “St. Mary Pantanassa” are also some of the earliest ones in Melnik. The Slavova fortress, the oldest military building in the town area, whose ruins still attract the tourist’s eye on the “St. Nicholas” hill, was under the authority of the Bulgarian independent autocrat Despot Alexius Slav.
One of the most popular attractions in Melnik is the Kordopulov house. You can see it from afar, proudly towering over the huddled houses in the small town. Surely, you will recognize it easily – if not by the size, then by the queue of visitors patiently waiting their turn. What exactly makes this building unique? It is the largest fully preserved house from the National Bulgarian Revival period, not only in the country but at the Balkans as well. It was built in 1754. Although renovated, only partial restorations were made in order to retain its original form, plan, wooden carvings and stained glass. The house is named after a prominent merchant and winemaker – Kordopoulos (Kordopulov). In front of it, you can see the ruins of the family church “Sveta Varvara”.
Museum of History
If you want to learn a little bit about the history of Melnik, which countries have ruled it through the years and how a big trading center of strategic importance has become the smallest town in Bulgaria, you can visit the historical museum. It is not very big which makes it fit perfectly the small town. It would be a particularly interesting stop if you haven’t spent much time on the Balkans because the exhibitions represent the life, clothing, and interior of the houses of the Bulgarian family over the years, typical for the cities and villages around the Balkans. Besides visiting the museum, you can take advantage of a discussion with a local guide which will cost you about 2,5 euro (5lv) or a guided tour around the city. Tours in foreign languages are available upon request but make sure to notify them about your visit in advance.
Museum of wine
After all the fascinating history learned and mesmerizing views it is time for a fun break! And where better to do that than the Museum of wine? Since it is located on the main street (where the main market used to be in the old days), you are bound to see this place and the wooden wine vats won’t let you pass it without noticing. From 10 am to 19 pm you can enjoy a walk through the history of wine, the different varieties and aromas and the methods of the production. All of this supported not only with photo materials but with lots of authentic instruments, some of which with very rich history. It is situated in the basement of a traditional Revival house and built like a cave that keeps a constant temperature no matter the season outside. Here except the process of wine production, you can learn how the Bulgarian rakia is distilled as well.
The most interesting way of learning more about the wine itself, of course, is trying it and trusting your own taste buds. What kind of a wine museum would that be without the option of wine tasting? Few oak vats, full of different wine, are awaiting our curious group in the furthest room and our eloquent guide tells us all about the renowned “Shiroka Melnishka” grape vine.
Did you know that the dry and sweet wine are divided into a few more subtypes depending on the sugar weight in one liter? You are able to taste all types of wine from red and white, dry, semi-sweet to dessert wine and take your favourite ones home, even tap it yourself with an authentic wine-press coming all the way from France.
You can also take your picture there, have it printed on a bottle and make an original and well, maybe a bit strange gift. After all, the “hey, here’s a bottle of wine with my face on it” can turn out pretty narcissistic, don’t you think? If you do not feel quite prepared for that turn of a gift you can always stick to the basics and drink the tasty wine yourself.
Speaking of souvenirs, here are a few ideas what you can pick up as a souvenir from Melnik if you’re bored of the most popular options of cards and magnets. Besides a bottle of wine (or maybe two or three) for friends and family, we strongly recommend that you try the homemade jams that are sold everywhere. Traditionally, the area is popular for the green figs jam, but you can also try and ripe figs, white cherries, blueberries, and chokeberry. We also saw people selling homemade honey with а wide variety of flavors including lavender. Day trips and weekend getaways are always the perfect opportunity to try traditional food from different regions of the country and get them as souvenirs or simply restock your cupboard.
The main street of the town (previously served the purpose of a bazaar or a trading center) is full of restaurants, traditional taverns, and souvenir shops to meet the needs of visitors. After walking all day exploring the town, you will certainly have a wide selection of Bulgarian dishes as addition to the famous wine of Melnik.
Other landmarks among the many authentic houses of Melnik are:
– The Turkish Residence (Konak) is an old public building, built in 1821. Over the years it was used for various activities and purposes – as a police station, military barracks, government building and even school board.
– We can only imagine how impressive the Boyar House was just by looking at its ruins! It is an important Medieval architectural monument and the oldest Byzantine house in the Balkans. Presumably, that was one of the most stunning houses at its time, richly furnished with a private courtyard.
– The Pashova House is a typical example of a Renaissance house, created by a Bulgarian master artst.
– The Turkish bath is a rectangular building with a typical for the Turkish style structure. Currently, it is not open for visitors.
– The church “St. Anthony” has a rather unconventional decor and murals in bright colors and without a religious theme. It is believed that the temple has a particularly strong healing properties with the patron of the church being able to help people with mental illness.
We would gladly spend more than just one day in Melnik! If you are planning to do the same and have free time on your hands it is a good idea to include some of the natural sights and historical landmarks in the area in your itinerary as well. Here are a few ideas for a long relaxed weekend for those of you who love to explore!
Rozhen Monastery and the picturesque village of Rozhen, located approximately 6-7 km from Melnik are one of the most popular attractions in the region. Also, an interesting destination not to be missed is Rupite area where the home of Vanga is located. It is a quiet place with a unique energy! The preserved house where Vanga has spent her last years is surrounded by “Sveta Petka” chapel and several mineral springs in a well maintained green park complex. If you haven’t heard of Baba Vanga (translates in Bulgarian as Grandma Vanga) – get familiar with her extraordinary story and skills.
Phew, boy, that was long! If you made it to here, here’s a photo of a cat as a reward!